One thing that I neglected to check into before departing was how we would get through the mountains that formed a natural border between the kingdoms of Sistina and Sanshiro.
Very little of the area along the mountain range had been explored and developed, save for the province of Akigawa. According to Katsys, there was a small mountain trail that cut through, which had been mapped out by traders that moved between regions. Aside from that, nests of strong monsters were known to inhabit the wilderness.
It would be unwise to travel through an unexplored territory with only the three of us, so we had decided to take the risk and gather information in Akigawa.
Currently, I was waiting with Katsys by the wagon, which was parked in the forest outside of town. Ludmila, wearing a spare cloak from Katsys’s Item Box, was sent to scout for information.
It had been just over half a year since I had come here to chase off a dragon. The memories of that time still felt rather vivid. Not to mention, the smell of dragon vomit still lingered in the back of my mind.
If we hadn’t met Ludmila during that time, I would’ve likely ended up rotting in a cell back in the capital. Her presence made a remarkable difference in our fighting ability. If there had been job classes in this world, she would’ve been well on her way to being a ninja. Her speed alone left afterimages that looked like shadow clones. Furthermore, she was the only one of us that had been taught mana manipulation, leading to a host of different skills.
For example, she could fake her status like Carina had done by influencing the mana around her. This mana veil disrupted the signals of the typical ‘Status Check’ magic. Of course, there were ways around it, but it required a stronger mana force to overcome this disruption, something that I was never taught.
However, Katsys had the ability to deconstruct that ‘Status Block’. Being an inventor that made use of search and analytical skills to understand the properties of her materials, she had developed a sense of mana manipulation all on her own. However, she had not been formally trained on how to use it, so she was rather clueless when it came to applying it to things other than her tinkering.
Aside from that, she had a natural proficiency with healing magic. However, healing magic in this world had its limits. It merely accelerated the healing of what the body could naturally do. Loss limbs could not be regenerated. Fatal strikes which couldn’t be healed in a condensed amount of time were a lost cause. It was ineffective against deadly diseases that overwhelmed the body’s defenses. There were no magic elixirs that could fully cure someone in a critical condition. No Phoenix Downs for the deceased. That was just how it was, no different than that of my previous world.
As Katsys and I idly chatted waiting for Ludmila to come back, said person came dashing back to report her findings.
“Ludmila detected no guards in the village. No sign of alertness. Everything is okay.”
Her reconnaissance mission had yielded positive results. Hopefully, we would be able to gather some information about the mountain path from the villagers.
Putting cloaks on Katsys and myself, the horse pulled our wagon towards the buildings that dotted the foot of the mountain.
Walking through the village, the air seemed completely different than the last time we first came here. There was no sense of dread and annoyance that came from a livelihood that had been suffering. There was no scent of sulfur lingering in the air.
Likely, the groundwater had cleared up in the time since I had last stepped foot here. People were happily going about their day as we passed by them. I walked up to one man, keeping my face partially obscured.
“Excuse me, we are travelers looking to find passage into Sanshiro. Would you happen to know how we would get there?”
The man looked at me skeptically. “Some of our guys made a living hauling goods there and back. I’m sure one of them would know. But it’s been a while since anyone’s gone.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Haven’t you heard? There’s been some ominous activity on the mountain path as of late. Some scary beast and such watching over it. It’s got most of us spooked. But as long as we don’t go near it, it doesn’t seem to be bothering us. Our harvest has been looking pretty good, so there’s no reason for us to endanger ourselves anyways.”
“Does that mean there’s plenty of rice?”
The man nodded. In my mind, cheers of celebration sounded.
‘We saved the rice! We saved the rice!’
Of course, I kind of knew that beforehand as rice was seen in the market this year, but it was good to know that our results had directly contributed to their prosperity.
Thanking the man, we went off to question more people, trying to locate those traders.
After talking with a few villagers, one of them suddenly moved his head to the side to get a better look at my face.
“Wait, aren’t you familiar?” He asked.
“N-No, this is the first time I’ve been here. We were just passing by and wanted to know the way.” I nervously brushed off his inquiry and started inching away.
We hadn’t gotten any useful information yet, but I could feel a flag just triggered. Maybe, it was better to move on without the information. At least, we knew there was a pathway, but I had wanted to know more about the mysterious beast that had popped up. We hurried towards the back entrance of the village leading to the mountains.
As we rolled through the center of the village, there was a large group of people waiting for us. Looks like they had gotten suspicious of us. Would we have no choice but to break through and escape? Though I felt hesitant to hurt anyone here, I signaled to Ludmila and Katsys to get ready.
A stocky villager standing in the middle of the crowd looked at us, arms crossed with a wide grin.
“Did you think that you’d be able to sneak by us without a proper welcome?”
My hand reached for my chef knife.
“After all, what kind of people would we be to let you go free…without the chance of throwing our saviors a party to celebrate!” The others cheered around him.
“Eh?” My voice leaked out. “Party?”
“You think we couldn’t tell? It’s not like you were hiding your status or anything, Knight Evers. We have our own magicians here, despite being inferior to those in the capital.” The man laughed at me.
Oh shoot. I hadn’t counted on ‘Status Check’ being such a low level spell.
“Um… you’re not going to stop me?” After all, the entire kingdom should’ve found out about me being a runaway criminal.
“You mean that nonsense about you offing someone, and then stealing the princess? That sounds like some work of fiction or fake news to us! I just can’t see a guy like you doing something like that. Just a gut feeling. At least, with no reason anyways.”
My body relaxed at his words. I looked over and nodded to my two companions. As they pulled back their hood, the crowd jumped at the sight of Katsys standing there.
“Wait! That’s the princess! Then…?”
“The story’s quite complicated. If there’s time, I can explain.” I quickly waved my hands to dismiss their assumptions.
“I see…We were contacted by the kingdom to send word if you guys had shown up. We’ll just keep telling them that we haven’t seen any sign of you yet. Could care less what they think. You’ve done us more good than they ever have. With that, you have no excuse to leave before we make you a feast.”
It seemed like the kingdom had ignored this territory for the most part. This was a community of people that was far removed from the rest of Sistina. It was not worthwhile to send a lot of resources to help them out, especially since they didn’t border a nation of interest. This worked in our favor as our task of wiping out the dragon and saving their livelihood held more impact than any loyalty the village felt to Sistina.
As the others began cooking and setting up for a party, I explained our situation to the man that seemed to be the leader of this village. He introduced himself as Tomo.
“Sounds rough. To be framed for something you didn’t do, and then made to look like you kidnapped the princess here.” Tomo rubbed his chin in thought.
“For now, we’re planning to escape to Sanshiro. At least, until the situation dies down a bit. At this point, I have no way of fighting against the kingdom’s forces who are convinced of my guiltiness. It’s best if you don’t get involved either.”
“Right. I’ll just tell them that you didn’t come my way. We also have some magicians on hand to steer away any of the homing pigeons that could be used to locate the princess.”
“That would be very helpful. Thanks.” I bowed my head to Tomo.
“Now, the question of whether you can make it through that path is a problematic point.” Tomo’s tone got serious. “The last time someone checked, there was a dragon’s nest parked near it. And not just any dragon, one with a sickening aura around it.”
“I guess mountains are a dragon’s natural terrain? I can’t imagine it being any scarier than last time, but we’ve leveled up since then.” I joked, thinking of how Katsys’s magic could likely tear through it.
Tomo rubbed his temples with a pained expression. Even knowing our current levels, he still had a worried look.
“If it’s you three, there’s a chance that you may succeed, but you’re no longer with those other two girls from last time.”
“Yeah…that’s unfortunate. But we really don’t have a choice but to move forward.” Certainly, the combined might of Eryn and Saki was a force to be reckoned with. Katsys could pelt it from long range while Ludmila and I fought it at close range. Our levels were higher than the last encounter, so there was more margin to deal with a dragon’s physical attacks.
Since it looked like the preparations were almost ready, we ended our talk here. I looked around and spied a person holding a wooden mallet pounding something in a stone bowl. Walking over, I saw that another person was hovering over the bowl, ready to flip and fold the white mixture inside in between swings of the mallet.
Over and over, the two men cycled between pounding and flipping. What resulted was a doughy, white mixture that became very stretchy when pulled. I was watching a live demonstration of mochi making.
“Speaking of which, I haven’t thanked the village for accepting us and giving us some intel. Would you mind if I prepared something with that dough here?” I felt like doing something in return.
“No, go right ahead.” The two men moved aside.
I brought some cooking gear out of my Item Box, which surprised the villagers. Not bothering to explain this strange sight, I immediately set to work cutting small pieces of mochi dough and forming them into blocks.
Bringing a frying pan to heat, I added some oil and the mochi dough and seared it on the top and bottom. Lastly, I pulled out a jar of soy sauce, imported from Macali, and garnished the fried mochi with it. A tasty scent lingered in the air, a prelude to the deliciousness that could be anticipated.
As people bit into the fried mochi and pulled it away from their mouth, the gooey inside stretched out like melted cheese. The resulting savoriness of the chewy, salty snack that I had created became an instant hit.
As we ate the villager’s food, they lined up for a chance to partake in some fried mochi. We decided to spend the rest of that evening taking a good rest before we had to brave the dangers that lay ahead.
During the party, a mysterious figure poked around, unnoticed by us. He stood off in the distance watching as we chatted with the villagers. He looked onward in silence as he continued to survey the situation.